Thursday, January 3, 2013

Controlling the Stuff

Whoever controls the story, controls the stuff. Whoever controls the stuff, controls the people.

Stuff is what people need to survive and be happy, whether essentials like food, clothing and shelter, or less essential things. Stuff can, of course, be controlled directly, but there are so many varieties of stuff that competing controllers of other varieties of stuff can make it difficult for the stuff-monopolist.

To control all stuff is nearly impossible in any but the most savage totalitarian state, and is self-defeating too, both in terms of kickback against the controls, and in terms of overall profitability of the state. In contrast, controlling by means of story can, if managed right, result in decent profitability, while arousing little opposition from the victims majority of the populace, who are not in the habit of challenging or deconstructing the stories that control them.

Part of the difficulty is that what people perceive as story does not encompass all the stories that are used against them. Money is a story, as are popular history, prejudices, images and laws. All these are very useful (even prejudices, which inform me that, chances are, the cougar in my back yard is not Charley the Disney cougar, looking for a tummy rub.)  A society without our web of stories is unimaginably poor and precarious.

Can any individual story be invariably recognized as malign or benign? Not easily. It depends on how they are grouped and used.

But a rule of thumb is: lies are the ultimate markers of control through story, just as violence is the ultimate marker of the control via stuff. (At the deepest levels, violence will always back up lies when they have lost their potency, but violence is clearly an attack, in a way that lies are not, and so is saved only for special occasions.)

In controlling a populace against its own interests, armies of malign stories work together. They can be recognized when they rely on untruths and anti-truths, rigid or meaningless rhetoric, and when they work to undermine sources of fact, speculation, and disagreement, and attack even the ability to reason.

Totalitarians, whether relying primarily on control of story or stuff, need to control any sources of story which are not their own, just as they control any sources of stuff which are not in their grip, because the ultimate control desired is the control of other people -- the source of all wealth.

Who controls the story, controls the stuff.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Few Tau Laws

1. "One person's unsupplemented tau is less than his whole-life sustenance needs."

2. "The combined tau of more than one (N) persons is greater than N x t."

3. "The extent to which (N x t) is greater, depends upon multiple factors, some of which are:

-- the population size
-- the age composition of the group
-- the gender composition of the group
-- the cultural resources and flexibility of the group
-- the age of the group and physical resources accumulated
-- external predatory forces threatening the group
-- internal predatory or parasitic forces on the group

The ease or difficulty of the environment will effect how these factors play out, but are external to the group dynamics per se.

4. "Above a certain size, an abstract medium of exchange will become necessary."

5. "In any stable society, there will always be some members at any one time who are doing no adult work. If all members are working, this is an indication that the group is in crisis."


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What's an income worth?

What's an income worth?

They say a dollar is worth what you can get for it. I went searching the internet this morning for a graph of median US income 1900 -- 2008 and couldn't find one, probably because that's like panning for gold without a pan -- I am sure our economics whizzes at Angry Bear or Economist's View would know right where to find this data.

But perhaps, because of changing circumstances, comparing constant dollar income from the beginning to the end of the century is a moot exercise, measuring something that doesn't translate in a meaningful way.

There was a time when dollars were much bigger in terms of what they could buy. Around the turn of the century, the blue plate special, a cheap restaurant meal, was described as "a square for two bits" -- twenty-five cents for a plate with typically one meat, two veg and a potato or other starchy serving. Today, the price for the same thing in a bare-bones diner would not be less than ten times that amount, but usually closer to twenty times the price.

Well, inflation. Yes, but tracking the proportion of this number to income, to the alternative cost of food elsewhere, comparing the luxury value of a diner meal versus a home-cooked chop, and the time available to the humble worker to get home and cook that chop -- so many factors come into judging the actual cost of the meal, that it might not be possible to say if the meal is more or less expensive in a dollar sense.

But if the value is alloted in tau (t), we arrive at a value that will be consistent over centuries. Individual human effort and attention is pretty constant, and time is fixed.

Abandoning the blue plate special to its gelid fate, let's look at what a single wage-earner's tau could support, 100 years ago.

I lifted the following comment of mine from Echidne of the Snakes, here, where another commenter begins:

Most of these houses originally had live-in servants on the 3rd floor and a relative or 3 in addition to parents and children.
And I replied:

[I found it] interesting to read a book from around the time of the US Civil War (by Scottish author George MacDonald) which remarks that the main character, a child, is "all alone in the house", and then find out a page later that there's a cook in the kitchen, a housemaid in the scullery, and a nanny upstairs. "Alone", indeed.

And a mile from my home is a run-down set of apartments (circa 1910) that were intended for young gentlemen just setting out in the world, with a bedroom, living/dining room, screened porch, bathroom and kitchen, and back beyond the kitchen, another bedroom for the young gentleman's manservant!

What this tells me is that, only 100 years ago, a single employed person, even a young man in his first job, made enough money to support one other person, or in the case of the household with the child who was "alone", six people of whom only one was a wage earner.

It's little literary details like this that show me how very far the ratio of remuneration to labour has fallen, in terms of what you can do with it. Can you imagine how much an employed husband would have to earn these days, to support a household of his wife, child, and three other adults?

Meanwhile, the people who used to be the house-servants are still at the same or a lower rate of pay, but without the room and board of the 1900s. Want fries with that?


~would quite like a housemaid or ghillie~
I will return to this double comparison -- a young unmarried worker then and now, and an older established worker (a bank manager, I think he was) with a wife and child, then and now -- to examine the movement of tau in the households. Clearly, in 1900 the available tau in a usual household was much greater for a given employment income. What this tells me is that no matter what the constant dollars might say, employment income today is less -- perhaps 1/4 to 1/8 -- of what it was at the turn of the other century.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Story and Stuff

Like flour and leaven, the weaving together of "story" and "stuff" makes our economic world possible.

In my last essay I determined that something I am calling "story" is one of the major elements binding together all of human society. One aspect of this is what the Greeks called rhetoric, or what we might call advertising or preaching or history or even language. (Math, less so – despite its greater abstraction, it is less amenable to taffy-pulling into new shapes.)

Story is simply the human imposition of patterned abstraction on the world. You could say that “story” is everything that isn’t “stuff”.

Stuff stays what it is despite our preferences or attempts to disregard it. The ancients said the elements which underlay all creation included Air, Fire, Water and Earth, and in many ways that idea can help us to understand stuff. A radio broadcast is story – the fluctuating electromagnetic waves (Fire) that bear it through the air, is stuff. The waves are still waves if they impinge on a deer or a raindrop – the pattern of language, however effective, loses that effect if the recipient is not appropriate.

Where does economics come into this simplistic duality? Well for one thing, all economies must be built on stuff. Despite what the monetarists claimed, especially in the giddy 80s and 90s, there is not and cannot be such a thing as an “information economy”. As Dorothy L. Sayers said in 1933, "... There's yeast in bread, but you can't make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising," announced Lord Peter sententiously, "is like leaven, which a woman hid in three measures of meal. It provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude representation into a form that the public can swallow.”

Without the yeast of story, all we are left with is a “crude mass” of stuff. I have made bread without yeast by accident, and though it would sustain life if one were lost in a cave, it’s not the kind of thing you would build a culture on. Stuff is sufficient for life and for an economy of a sort, but woefully inadequate for even the most limited sort of cultural achievement. It is the two together, in correct proportions, which enable us to achieve the marvels of our species.

I knew some time along here I would need to start drawing diagrams. Here is the first, the old economic cycle model, with a few doodles.

It shows a team of producers, with some product flowing from them, passing through middlemen and shippers, and finally arriving at the customers. This is nice, but not sufficiently accurate.

The real situation is probably more like this:

The customers are mostly producers, the flow is not linear but in a network, and the potential for unintended consequences seems to approach a mathematical certainty. On the minus side, this looks ridiculously complex – on the plus side, it is the reality, not the pretty but unreal DC circuit of buyer and seller.

To pin down and quantify the bottlenecks of this webwork is not an impossibility, I am sure. I bet calculus will come in here somewhere. But after the work is done, I expect to see a model that will let us see how to bring all the interconnecting rings into relationship in order to yield a more stable, more compassionate, fairer and incidentally far richer society.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Coming Saturday, the next installment -- "Story and Stuff"

If money is imaginary (as most people would agree if pushed to the edge of argument) then where does its power come from? And when it loses power, how did that happen?

... stay tuned.

Until then, here is my buddy "Cookie" exploring the sculptured lake shore, one of the last kindly days we are likely to have this year.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Added Today -- Cumulative Glossary

Until I can assemble a proper glossary, I will keep adding terms and definitions to this:

Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Seven Deadly Sins

The Hazard of Induced Acedia in Supply Side Economics
First published on Monday, April 09, 2007 on the Angry Bear economics blog.


Every journalist, I suppose, has a list of questions they dream of asking some famous person, preferably on live network TV.

My personal daydream at the moment is to stand up and ask President Bush whether he can name the seven deadly sins.

I suppose he would wiggle out of it, look blank, or get a witty comeback courtesy of his walky- talky backpack. But in a daydream like this, it is more the response of the listeners than that of the patsy which matters. In this scenario, the listeners would blink and realize that not only does the emperor have no clothes, but he has no clues. Then a national discussion would arise, driving Justin and Britney off the airwaves. Well, I did say it was a daydream.

This brings us to the one of the seven deadly sins which is called "acedia". Acedia is a Latin word, from Greek akedia, literally meaning "absence of caring".

A great deal of the triumph of corporatism in recent decades has to do with the entrenchment of acedia in western thought, and its wilful spread by authorities who may or may not believe in it. Why deadly?" Because as a result of buying into acedia, ordinary people lose the ability to defend themselves from the pressures of the supply side market.

It shows up in public language, in legal rulings, and in the concerns to which public institutions and pervasive spokespersons grant or do not grant validity. Sun Tzu famously said the best way to win a war is to remove the enemy's will to resist. Acedia is what you have left when that will to resist is removed.

I used to argue with a pleasant, large and kindly co-worker who was a business writer and who had thoroughly bought into the business model. He had heard all my arguments from others, and heard them again from me with, I must say, remarkable patience.

A catalogue of the disasters of pollution, social collapse, slave labour, and the dozens of other worries of typical "left-leaning" citizens, did nothing to ruffle his condescending smile. He really, truly didn't care. He told me often, in response to my diatribes, that he expected to die, and that would be it, and any problems in the living world were his children's problems. The Chinese economic model? "Why should you care what happens to some Chinese guy?" he asked me curiously. Their policies were making the Chinese GDP rise rapidly, and damn the pandas. Everything will die, so what does it matter?

But he didn't not care about everything, only some things. When it came to tax rates, government controls on business, and the interference of human rights and environmental issues with the development of industry, he could wax quite wroth.

The danger of buying into acedia is that when one's own desires and priorities are disparaged, they become quaint and expendable factors, as unimportant as choosing green over brown when buying a shirt — even in areas of compelling human significance.

All economy, all of it, is based on human choice and the allocation of human energy and attention. There are physical limits to the energy and capacity for attention of any individual, so beyond a certain point, extraordinary pressures must be put in place to persuade people to allocate more and more attention and energy toward the desires of industries, which after all exist and survive only because of the participation of human beings..

This is the essence of supply-side economics, and induced acedia makes the process a great deal easier.

Well, I can hear some of our readers asking, "So what if people's choices are subverted and bent to the service of the economy? Isn't a lively economy good for us?"

Maybe. Sometimes. But busier is not necessarily better. As a child learning to swim, I had to be taught that the most efficient swimming caused the least froth. A frothy economy is only good for the very few who can ride the foam.

The GDP is not a measure of genuine wellbeing, but only of froth. Take one hypothetical example: if we cut our sugar industry by 95%, and as a result cut our insulin industry by 98% and the health care industry by 20%, there would be a huge net loss to the GDP and an enormous benefit to our shared prosperity.

When someone sets aside what you really value, and tells you to substitute other values, sometimes they are reliable teachers whose advice will benefit you. Other times, they serve their own desires instead of yours. Alertness to this distinction can serve us well.

The seven are: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride).